I visited Houghton recently. It’s a vast early 18thc landscape park in rural west Norfolk surrounding a Grade 1 listed Palladian house built for Sir Robert Walpole, who was effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister. I’ve wanted to go there for a long time but a new temporary exhibition there finally convinced me to go now as a birthday treat.
Houghton Hall is the home of the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England and his family, but he doesn’t appear to be as traditional as his titles might suggest, and is developing Houghton into a lively centre for the contemporary arts, while maintaining and enhancing its extraordinary heritage including its gardens and parkland.
The Walpoles had been lords of the manor of Houghton since at least the early 14thc when Sir Robert Walpole inherited the estate with its Jacobean house in 1700. He was elected to Parliament in 1701 and as member for King’s Lynn made Houghton his local power base. Around 1717 he started pouring money into the estate creating a vast landscape around the Hall and then in 1722 turned his attention to the mansion itself.
Walpole began by inviting the leading architects of the day Colen Campbell and James Gibbs to design a new house and later engaged William Kent to decorate the grand rooms on the state floor and to design a new stable block – known as The Square – and probably several farms and other estate buildings.
Historic England attribute much of the early development of Houghton’s grounds and gardens to Charles Bridgeman, the royal gardener, but their description dates from 1999 and this attribution has been convincingly disputed more recently, notably by Andrew Eburne in Garden History [ Bridgeman and the Gardens of the Robinocracy, vol 31:2 2003]. The next section of the post is based on his article, which itself is based on an analysis of five maps and one sketch of Houghton between 1720 and 1735. Unfortunately they do not tally precisely – one of the joys of deciphering evidence!
In 1719 Thomas Badeslade was commissioned to survey the Houghton estate which by then stretched to some 120 hectares. He shows the Jacobean house with an elaborate garden in front of it, and a further 3 gardens, probably including orchards to the side. The parkland was laid out with a geometric pattern of intersecting avenues. There was a central axis aligned on the hall with a number of minor axes, some of which continued the lines of the main walks in the garden. In the woodland groves there are various features including buildings and a mount.
Chronologically next comes a map inscribed to “Esquire Walpole” which must date it before 1725 when Walpole is knighted, but which must be even earlier because it shows the incomplete new house [no wings]. Attributed by Peter Willis in his monograph on Bridgeman to his subject [although without supporting documentary evidence] it also shows very different details in the wilderness features.
Thirdly there is an unsigned survey in the Houghton archives which can be dated to between 1723 when Colen Campbell’s designs were revised [which it shows] and 1729 when the village of New Houghton was founded [which is not shown]. It records alterations to the grass parterre in front of the house and show a probable extension of the estate to about 200 ha.
Campbell himself published a plan of Houghton dated 1723 in his Vitruvius Britannicus which was published in 1725. It shows the new house set slightly further east than its predecessor, and aligned on this new placement a major new North-South axis. However little else seems to change, especially not in the main western sections of the garden.
Next in the sequence comes the sketch. It’s by Edmund Prideaux, a friend of Walpole’s, and probably dates from 1725 because that’s the year that James Gibbs came to add the towers to the house. Prideuax includes the first of these, together with the building in front of the hall that was housing for the workmen. It also shows the cones and clipped standards that lined the central grass walk which tally with Badeslade’s survey.
And finally there’s the map published by Isaac Ware in The Plans, elevations and Sections of Houghton in 1735. This is on a different scale and shows more alterations, notably the replacement of the walks, alleys and quarters by block planting. There is some doubt [when isn’t there!] about whether this was actually ever done. One other possibility is, of course. that this may simply have been in part a simplification due to the scale of the cartography and the comparative smallness of the plate.
There seems to be nothing that ties any of these early plans in to Charles Bridgeman. It is known he was there but only in the 1730s when the grounds were already well established. Instead Eburne attributes the design of Houghton to Kingsmill Eyre, the brother of a political colleague of Walpole, and who clearly acted as a trusted agent for the prime minister, for example, buying trees for him for the orchards and woodland, as well as dealing with other domestic matters.
Whatever the exact detail of what and when things were done there is no doubt that, together with the amassing of a magnificent art collection, it all cost huge amounts of money. The result was that despite Walpole’s notorious corruption he died £40,000 in debt in 1745, having been raised to the peerage as Earl of Orford. Thereafter the estate began to deteriorate. His son, the second earl, was strapped for cash, and it continued to be in short supply under the third earl. In 1791 the estate passed to Robert’s youngest son, Horace, of Strawberry Hill fame, who famously moaned: “Houghton, I know not what to call it, a monument of grandeur or ruin.”
Ruin would probably have been be the view of the next owner the fourth Earl Cholmondeley, the grandson of Robert’s daughter who inherited in 1797. He already had Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire and showed little interest in his new acquisition, and hardly lived there. So its not surprising that by 1841 James Grigor opened his account of Houghton by saying that “in noting this seat, we must chiefly refer to what it has been, not what is; for there is now scarcely anything to interest the visitor.”
Despite Grigor’s gloomy description the landscape was not entirely neglected. There are maps from around 1800 showing how its rigid formality was softened, and a new, more serpentine, drive created. Another survey of 1836 records further substantial new planting. But by the mid-19thc the estate was definitely regarded as the family white elephant and put on the market more than once. It was thought the Duke of Wellington might be interested and later even hopes that the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, would buy it although in the end, in 1862, he chose nearby Sandringham instead.
We have plenty of evidence of what happened during the mid-century. Both the first edition OS 6″ map published in 1885 and a set of auction particulars of 1886 show that although the parkland is shown well-timbered, with a variety of plantations, clumps and avenues, the great open central vista that once stretched out almost to the sunset is littered with trees and has effectively vanished.
The area closest to the house was reduced to a simple lawn with a pattern of beds and clumps of shrubs and trees, in what could almost be described as a gardenesque design, typical of those recommended by Loudon.
The auction particulars also included plates showing the view back to the house.
Beyond this, further away from the hall itself, as can be seen on the image from Google Earth there appears to be a whole complex of beds, paths, and borders. According to Historic England archival eveidence suggests these date from the mid-19thc although they did not last long and were grassed over again before the end of the century.
When Houghton didn’t sell it was rented out to a succession of tenants and its future looked bleak. Of course such neglect has a few advantages. One is that the shortage of money meant there was, thank heavens, no Victorian makeover, and Houghton’s architecture has been preserved as Walpole left it. But neglect can only be allowed to go so far before it turns into irretrievable decay and luckily Houghton found its saviours at just the right moment.
The future 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley married in 1913 and he and his wife, Sybil Sassoon made Houghton their home just after the First World War. The sister of Philip Sassoon of Trent Park and Port Lympne, she was extremely rich and endowed with a sense of good taste as well as a sense of history.
Her money saved, and then, in the 1920s, began the restoration of the house and estate. The interiors were meticulously done while outside the great staircase on the west front, which had been taken down by the third earl, was rebuilt, there was new parkland planing and amazingly the recreation of the formal lines of the early 18thc layout which are now well on their way to maturity and provide Houghton’s magnificent setting today.
Sybil Cholmondeley also oversaw the opening of Houghton to the public in 1976 when it had 40,000 visitors. The following year she remarked during a talk that “it shows how times have changed because when people enquire ‘what the bag was’ they are referring not to game but the number of visitors one has had.’
She was often seen on the entrance desk not wishing Houghton to become like a National Trust property “which lack the human touch.” She also linked The Square, which nowadays contains the usual paraphernalia of ticket office, cafe, shop and toilets to the house with a simple but effective block of pleached lime which cannot fail to impress. Nowadays it leads through a wide Golden border at the foot of the steps up to the house that was given to the couple by the estate staff for their Golden Wedding in 1973.Maintaining Houghton was a labour of love that pre-occupied her to the very end of life in 1989, some 70 years after she first moved there. She was understandably held in high regard and for her 90th birthday there was a dinner in the Stone Hall for 90 guests including the queen, queen mother and 9 other members of the royal family. Her work has been continued by her grandson, the current Marquess.
Nowadays the western garden is simple in concept but enormous in scale. As can be seen from the aerial view seen earlier a central lawn runs in the whole width of the house and its colonnades before narrowing down to down to a central grass ‘path’ flanked by blocks of formal wilderness which were recreated/replanted in the mid 20thc. The grass ‘path’ leads to a deep ha-ha with a semi-circular bastion that was reconstructed on the original 18thc line in 1999. At the far corner of the northern wilderness a path leads to a 19thc woodland covert which is underplanted with rhododendrons.
On the northern side of the gardens is what appears to be a classical temple, but is in fact an 18thc pump house known as the Water House. It was designed before 1733 by the Earl of Pembroke, and was restored by estate craftsmen under Sybil Cholmondeley’s watchful eye in the early 1980s.
Beyond the gardens there are, despite some ploughing-up, still 160ha of parkland left at Houghton. On the western side beyond and around the gardens it is mainly woodland but on the remaining sides of the house it is much more open grassland with clumps and specimen trees and even some remnants of the early 18thc plantings. There is also a herd of white deer.
The parkland also contains an 18thc icehouse, a mediaeval cross thought to be a survival from the old village of Houghton that was moved by Walpole to make way for the park, and the medieval church of St Martin restored by Walpole in 1727 and where he and many of his family are buried.
The one area I haven’t mentioned is the 5 acre walled kitchen garden and that’s because I’d exceed my self-imposed word limit [and your patience] so I’m saving that for the next post when I’ll look at how Houghton has developed over the last 20 years or so and why I particularly wanted to go to Houghton this summer.
For more on Sybil Cholomondeley see Peter Stansky’s biography of her and her brother: Sassoon 
What a timely post! In September I’ll be taking a group of Canadian gardeners to visit Houghton Hall and your research gives me lots to tell them. I look forward to the next instalment, about the walled garden.